It all started with the #wildfeetures design competition in our Wildling community.
Wildling fans could submit a design for their favourite model, and in 2020, to mark Wildling's fifth birthday, our product team will work with winner Anja Haltermann to bring her design to life. At the same time we're taking the opportunity to film and document the shoe development process from the idea to the finished shoe.
The Wildling workshop is a place where two worlds collide: the digital and the analogue. We work digitally with cloud-based project tools and Excel sheets, with phases working from home. But most of the work still requires us to be able to pick up fabrics and other materials. How does the fabric feel, how flexible is it, and what does the pattern look like in real life? Scissors always within reach, paper and pens for sketching a pattern or a wild design, needle and thread for initial 3D models.
Fabric samples snuggle up against each other in drawers, laces and thread in all different colours wait to be put away, and Wildlings from earlier collections lie happily together, looking curiously at the prototypes for the next summer collection.
The perfect place for the first act of #wildfeetures.
“How complex can a shoe really be?” you might ask yourself. A sole, some fabric, laces – done! Well, if you've held a Wildling in your hand (or had it on your foot), you might have an inkling of how different Wildlings are from conventional shoes. It all starts with the sole, continues to the upper fabric and still has a way to go from there...
Many (development) steps are necessary before a Wildling can go into production. Sometimes the starting point is a particular material, sometimes a particular pattern or a colour or function... that determines the steps that come next.
Anja really had a great idea; she wanted to use a fabric that's still in the early stages of development: a textile that, like fir cones and certain types of leaf, is self-cleaning, resistant to water and dirt, and also robust.
We’ve been looking for that kind of all-round talent ourselves for a long time. Let's see if we can find it together...
If you look with open eyes at the entire production process of a shoe and search for alternatives to “we’ve always done it that way”, then you find lots of materials that at first seem an unusual choice for making shoe uppers. Wool, paper, hemp – just because they’re good for outer clothing such as jumpers, shirts, or even trousers, it doesn't mean they’ll be suitable for shoes.
But we've had good experiences with the materials mentioned. If we consider requirements for functionality and “naturalness”, they fulfil most of our criteria.
What a Wildling must be able to do
Our requirements for the materials for our Wildlings are numerous and often even contradictory – they should be able to do everything!
- They need to be firm and flexible: firm enough to support feet. And by support we mean that the foot shouldn't slip around in the shoe. Flexibility is basically the core feature of our shoes: They need to adjust to all the natural movements of our feet, whether we’re hiking, climbing, jumping...
- Water-resistant and breathable would be great. For autumn and winter we’d like a shoe that keeps feet warm while preventing rain and snow from getting in and cooling our feet down. At the same time, feet need to be able to breathe, so that we're not left standing in our own sweat. Wool is the best material we’ve found so far. Combined with a water-resistant membrane, it’s the closest we've got to our idea of warm winter Wildlings.
- Sustainable and robust. Raw materials should be natural and of sustainable origin, and the material created from them should last for as long as possible. Because durability can also be a criterion for sustainability. Something durable doesn’t need to be repaired or replaced as often. Shoes in particular have to put up with a lot. They're worn on stony or rocky ground or are pushed to the limit on ride-on toys. A conventional cotton shoe can hardly survive such conditions. That's why microfibre, for example, is a good compromise. It strengthens our natural fabrics at the places where they're most exposed to stress and strain.
With this requirements catalogue we begin the search for new materials.
Bionics – learning from plants and animals
Our winner, Anja, visited product manager Pia and designer Sabine in our workshop to talk about her idea of a Wildling with “smart technology”. The idea is a fabric that can increase its water-resistant or breathable properties depending on what’s required. This is called the “pine cone effect”. At particular temperatures, pine and fir cones open up to let seeds fly off. Since seeds can't germinate when it's frosty and can't fly very far in the rain, the cones close up in those conditions and wait for better times. As a material for shoes it would mean that the fabric adjusts to the temperature of its surroundings. Elements would draw together when it’s cold, to keep warmth in the shoe, while opening up when it’s warmer in order to balance out the temperature.
Scientists, engineers and designers have long been looking at the answers nature has for all kinds of problems. This interplay between biology and technology is called bionics. Paints that, like the lotus blossom, repel water and dirt, so it just slides down the surface; coatings that, like a shark’s skin, prevent algae and parasites from taking hold; or blinds that react by themselves to light – these are just a few of the developments that were inspired by plants and animals.
But whether a material is suitable for a Wilding remains to be seen. As this model is already supposed to go into production in the coming year, we have to get our skates on and order swatches, or fabric samples. These are then reviewed, tested, and if they meet our requirements after this brief overview they're sent to the production plant in Portugal so a prototype can be created.
Getting Inspiration at Performance Days in Munich
Material for a Wildling?
After looking at the first fabrics, which we still have samples of in the workshop, we meet with the representative of a large textile company. We’re interested in a material that can regulate moisture and reacts to temperature.
So we fire questions at the textile rep. Is the material suitable for an upper? Can it be dyed individually? To what extent do you notice the warming effect? Can you measure the difference? What materials are the weave and the filling made of? Would it make the membrane redundant? How sustainable is it?
After the meeting we sit together for a while without the rep. We didn’t like all of the answers. As an artificial material, it wouldn’t fulfil our sustainability criteria. Although it's “bio-degradable”, that's only under certain conditions that are not available at any waste disposal site in Germany (and certainly not on a compost heap). If it would really improve functionality considerably, we could consider it as an alternative. But as there’s no reliable data on improved temperature adjustment, we’re not convinced by that aspect either.
Still, the conversation gives us lots of suggestions and specific ideas for further fabric research. We’ll keep looking!
Anna, Ran & Team Wildling